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Lower Valley citizen group sues Army Corps of Engineers over Snoquamie River flooding

Explaining the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Association
Explaining the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Association's lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reporters, Jubilee Farm owner Erick Haakenson, center, call for a new, basin-wide study of the Lower Valley. The alliance filed papers against the Corps permit for the Puget Sound Energy hydroelectric project at Snoqualmie Falls on July 7.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

The waters have long since receded, but the thick black lines on Erick Haakenson’s barn wall still bear witness to the damage that the January 2009 flood did to the Lower Valley.

Haakenson’s Jubilee Farm barn was built several generations ago, on a spot that the original builders considered floodproof. That certainty vanished after what Haakenson called “the flood to end all floods,” in 1990. He painted the first stripe on his barn to mark the height of the event.

Even after the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed the Snoqualmie Falls Flood Reduction Project, also known as the “205 project,” in 2005, Haakenson had little respite. Floods in 2006 and 2009 topped the 1990 mark on his barn, leading him to question what the project really did to Lower Valley farmers in the river’s path.

When Haakenson learned of a second flood control measure planned at Snoqualmie Falls, this time as part of Puget Sound Energy’s planned makeover now in the works, he drew a different kind of line. Haakenson is among Lower Valley residents who filed suit last week against the Corps of Engineers in an effort to stop channel widening efforts at the Falls.

“You’ve got to ask what the relationship is between blasting away the side of Snoqualmie Falls so that water can escape more quickly, and higher flooding that we experience 15 miles below,” Haakenson said. “How can we make a judgement to do something like this when there’s every reason to suspect that there might be serious impacts?”

Fast-track permit?

Describing itself as a group of business owners, farmers and residents, the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance held a press conference Wednesday, July 7, laying out its position. That morning, the group’s lawyer filed papers in U.S. District Court in Seattle, challenging the permit issued by the Corps to allow PSE’s project to proceed.

At issue is whether the Corps followed the proper procedure in granting Clean Water Permit Act authorization to the project. Alliance member Geary Eppley says no. He claims the Corps followed a “quick-pass” process that eliminated a deeper look at Lower Valley flooding.

“They need to do the long-form process, which requires a full study of basin-wide impacts,” he said.

“We want to have PSE and the Corps go back and do a real study,” Haakenson added. “The remedy is that the project be halted until the study is done.”

Corps officials could not be reached by press time.

Run of the river

Work has already begun on changes at the Falls’ mouth. According to Puget Sound Energy, channel changes are predicted to lower the 100-year flood levels in Snoqualmie by six inches, while raising the Lower Valley level by less than an inch.

While aware of the suit, Puget Sound Energy is continuing its redevelopment project.

“The permits are valid until proved otherwise,” said Martha Monfried, PSE’s Director of Corporate Communications. “We have the permits and are moving forward.”

River teams were at the Falls last week, working on the project.

“We have three years of work to do,” Monfried said. “We spent ten years getting the permits.”

Puget Sound Energy has continually stressed that the Falls plant and dam hold back negligible amounts of water.

“It’s a run of the river facility,” Monfried said.

PSE Water Resources Program Manager Bob Barnes told the Valley Record in 2009 that January’s record flooding in Carnation involved a perfect storm of flooding on the Snoqualmie River and the Tolt.

More information?

Lower Valley residents have called for a thorough, basin-wide study since last fall, when PSE’s plans to change the mouth of the falls became widely known.

“We’re getting to the point where enough is enough,” said Eppley, who is locally known as the creator of flood watch Web site Floodzilla. “In the last five years, we’ve had three of the top four floods in recorded history.”

The Corps’ 205 project was estimated to raise 100-year flood levels in the Lower Valley by a tenth of a foot. But the Alliance claims that Lower Valley residents experienced much higher levels of flooding.

“We can’t say for sure that the 205 project is the cause of that,” Haakenson said. “But it’s certainly reasonable to think that before someone repeats a project that was followed by these massive floods, they’d at least want to see what the actual impacts, not the projected impacts, are.

“They point back to the projected impacts of 205 and say, well, it was projected to not have an impact then, so this one won’t either,” he added. “We’re saying wait a minute, it did have an impact, a huge impact. We should be adopting a precaution principle here. Why would we go and do another one like it and possibly do much more impact?”

“We’ve been asking the county and the corps to do studies and get more information before we do more work,” Eppley said. “We haven’t gotten satisfaction there.”

Flood damage

The January 2009 flood was one of the worst to hit Snoqualmie Falls Golf Course. The course was closed for six months, and lost half a million dollars to clean-up costs and down time.

The corps lawsuit was a last avenue for head pro Jeff Groshell. It comes after several meetings with county flood control officials.

“We have to file a lawsuit to have them do a study and help us out, or at least know what they’re doing to us before they do it,” he said. “They’re telling us they don’t know how to measure the river once it’s out of its banks, they don’t have a model for the lower part of the river, and yet they keep adding these projects.”

Groshell has been told that the costs of a study are huge. But he points to the costs to residents of speeding more water over the Falls.

“We’re hanging by a thread,” he said.

“Let’s stop pushing our problems downriver,” Groshell added. “I like the fact that they’re helping the city of Snoqualmie, that’s good. But let’s come up with a plan that helps everybody in the Valley.”

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